A father and son share a lifelong love of plants and a landscape they’ve created together.
By Scott Meyer | Photographs by Rob Cardillo
Tony Ashton, holding a prized amaryllis, and his son Glenn have designed a unique landscape featuring many uncommon plants in the yard around their family home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Driving to the home of Tony and Madge Ashton, you see well-kept houses surrounded by neat lawns, arborvitaes, and little borders with marigolds or petunias. The neighborhood is tucked away in a corner of Lower Bucks County, Pennsylvania, between two busy thoroughfares and freight railroad tracks, and as the road takes a bend, a different kind of landscape comes into view. One brick-faced house has a front yard with multiple flowerbeds, each overflowing with lush foliage and brilliant blooms. Step around back and you’re enveloped by a collection of plants reflecting the eclectic horticultural enthusiasms of Tony and his son Glenn, head gardener at PHS Meadowbrook Farm in Abington Township, Pennsylvania.
Glenn, 51, spends his days designing and tending the showcase beds at the large public estate garden, and he also gets to live at the farm. “It’s an incredible experience to wake up at such a beautiful place every day,” he says. But living there doesn’t keep him from regularly heading home to tinker in the garden in which he grew up.
“It’s my living laboratory,” Glenn says of his parents’ property. “It lets me see what works and what doesn’t work.”
The sunny slope in the front yard is ideal for Oenothera missouriensis, Hesperaloe parviflora, and Salvia guaranitica.
The Ashton family moved into this house more than 40 years ago, when Glenn was 6 years old. Tony wanted to grow vegetables, so he removed grass and planted a garden like the one his parents had tended at their home in nearby Cheltenham, Pennsylvania. “Some of my earliest memories are of walking through that garden with my grandfather,” Glenn says. “I also remember watching my grandmother water her collection of African violets and other houseplants.”
Glenn’s older brother, Eric, had no interest in gardening, but Glenn and his sister, Jill, loved it and got especially excited when the time came to plant, harvest, and then eat the sweet potatoes. “I loved the whole process as a kid,” Glenn says, “digging in the ground, getting dirty, doing something that felt important.”
As a teenager, Glenn developed a keen interest in the natural world, from plants to birds to bugs, by poring over books and magazines and observing various ecosystems outside his house, such as uncultivated spaces around the neighborhood. “I remember being amazed by visits to the city and seeing plants growing in abandoned places,” he says.
“I think Glenn was pretty normal for a kid,” says Tony, who is retired from a career in the business office of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “But he was very serious about learning all he could about nature. I don’t know where people get a green thumb from, but Glenn has always had one.”
Late-summer blooms in the backyard garden.
“The American Horticultural Society A–Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants was my guide,” Glenn recalls. “I studied it; I brought it with me to nurseries. I needed to know all I could about plants.”
A few years after high school, Glenn went to work at Snipes Farm, a local garden center, and began to transform the landscape at the family home. By then the vegetable garden had become a source of frustration. “Groundhogs and rabbits ate most of what we’d planted before we could,” Tony recalls. “We had dogs, but they didn’t seem to be much help. We tried all kinds of things to protect the garden—raised beds, fences, anything we heard or read about—but none of it worked. We couldn’t win.”
With his parents’ approval, Glenn leveled the raised vegetable beds and planted the area with trees, shrubs, vines, and perennials—just about any plant that caught his attention. Family members contributed to the collection too. “Aunt Reba, my father’s sister, was another gardening mentor of mine,” Glenn says. “She gave us a division of Tatarian aster [Aster tataricus], and it’s still one of my favorite plants because it blooms so late in autumn.”
Walking through the yard now, Glenn points out the small but distinct sections of the landscape. A band of tall trees and shade-loving shrubs creates a narrow woodland garden that screens the house from the train tracks beyond. At the back of the property, a two-bin composting system transforms yard waste into a valuable soil amendment.
As Glenn’s landscape took shape, he noted the evolving microclimates and began to identify the right plants for each spot. The first bed you encounter in the back of the house, for instance, gets drenched with late-afternoon sun in the summertime. In that season, the space is dominated by tall, self-seeding species that thrive in bright places, such as rudbeckias and delphiniums. “Pacific Giant hybrid delphiniums are popular,” he says, “but I like the native species [D. exaltatum] better. It self-seeds freely here.”
Nearby, Glenn points to a common buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis). “It tolerates both flooding and dry spells,” he says. “That’s why it’s a perfect fit for the spot I excavated into a sunken rain garden many years ago.”
The bed on the house’s south side drains well and heats up sooner in spring and cools down later in autumn than other beds. “Because of the sun and radiant heat reflecting off the house, this bed is warmer, with a climate closer to Zone 7 than Philadelphia’s Zone 6,” he says. Here he’s planted several sage varieties, including the red-flowering Salvia greggii, the blue-bloomed Salvia azurea var. grandiflora, and the pink-and-white Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips’.
Goldfinches and other songbirds come for the feeders but stay for the seeds gleaned from the garden.
Just a few minutes into a tour of the garden, you learn that Glenn’s knowledge of plants is deep and wide and that he enjoys sharing it. He is soft-spoken, but the words come out in gushes as he talks about the uniquely appealing attributes of each plant he loves. And he loves so many of them that you can’t walk far before he finds another he’s eager to rhapsodize about.
Tony stands by and nods his head, both proud of and amazed by all that Glenn has taught himself and by how much he has learned from his son. Tony’s passion for plants has extended to an interest in the wildlife attracted to them. “My kindergarten teacher set up a bird feeder right outside the window of our classroom,” he recalls. “I thought that was fascinating—maybe even more so than what we were learning inside.”
This fascination hasn’t waned in the years since. In spring 2016, Tony called Glenn at work to report that a dozen or more Baltimore orioles had alighted in a tree on which a climbing trumpet vine (Campsis radicans ‘Minnesota Red’) was in full bloom. “Dad was so excited,” Glenn says. “He’d never seen so many orioles.” Tony takes responsibility for regularly filling several bird feeders, which hang on wires strung between trees to keep squirrels from plundering them. A longtime member of the American
Begonia Society, the elder Ashton also tends his large collection of begonias and other potted plants, though he no longer enters them in competitions.
Glenn’s job at Meadowbrook Farm keeps him busy creating, planting, and maintaining its demonstration gardens. He also leads workshops on a variety of topics, such as how to attract hummingbirds (see “For the Hummers” on page 39). Through the sponsorship of the Huntingdon Valley Garden Club, he recently received a Garden Club of America commendation for “making a significant contribution to horticulture.”
Even with the demands of his daily work, Glenn still manages to visit his parents a few times a week and work in their garden—adding new plants, removing others, and making sure it looks its best. He loves weeding, not a sentiment usually expressed about this necessary garden chore, but he explains: “It allows you to look intently and think about what to keep and what to get rid of.”
Though the Ashton family landscape is continually changing, a few traditions remain constant. The tour concludes at a sunny bed beside the driveway, where fennel plants topped with pale-yellow flowers stand over 5 feet tall. The dahlias, however, grow even taller, and they sport showy blossoms in vivid colors, which are clearly the main attraction—for visitors and for the Ashtons. “My mother loves dahlias, but her birthday is in November,” Glenn says. “My goal every year is to have the dahlias survive until her birthday, and many years it happens.” As he says this, he smiles broadly—perhaps thinking about the floral delights of the moment but also maybe remembering the many years he and his family have found pleasure in the garden they created together.
Scott Meyer is editorial director of GROW. Learn more about Meadowbrook Farm, the estate, and the garden center, at meadowbrookfarm.org.
For the Hummers
Showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)
A hardy perennial, it spreads around the garden via underground roots. It’s a host plant for monarch butterflies as well.
Mexican firebush (Hamelia patens)
The tropical tree makes an excellent summer container plant. It’s not hardy this far north, so it needs to be moved indoors in late autumn.
Red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora)
Though it’s native to Mexico, red yucca is hardy and very long-lived in our region. It’s “xeric,” meaning it requires little moisture and will bloom for weeks on end even in hot, sunny, dry spots.
Mexican honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera)
Deep-orange tubular flowers bring hummingbirds swarming to what is sometimes called firecracker plant. Grown in a container kept in partial sun and deadheaded regularly, it blooms all summer into autumn.
Devil’s tobacco (Lobelia tupa)
Spikes of scarlet-petaled flowers open atop 4- to 6-foot-tall stems from mid to late summer. The tender perennial fares best where it gets midday shade.
Salvia farinacea, or mealycup sage (cultivar unknown), blooms from early summer to frost.
Papaver somniferum, commonly called opium poppy, opens pink, crepey blossoms and reseeds itself.
Monarda didyma ‘Jacob Cline’, a bee balm cultivar, attracts butterflies and hummingbirds and resists mildew.
Silphium perfoliatum, often called cup plant, holds water where beneficial insects can sip it.
Lilium ‘Scheherazade’ perfumes the air on summer evenings.
Spigelia marilandica, or Indian Pink, lights up shady areas with its red-and-yellow flowers.